Home Events What’s the point of photography exhibitions in the age of social media?

What’s the point of photography exhibitions in the age of social media?

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We live in an era where taking and sharing photographs is easy: phones are equipped with excellent cameras, countless social media channels are available for posting images, and a global audience awaits. So, what is the point of exhibiting photographs or visiting a photographic exhibition?

Earth Tone Geometry
Earth Tone Geometry

Arranging an exhibition of photographs is no small undertaking. Creating a body of work worthy of display is an obvious prerequisite. Convincing someone to exhibit that body of work in a controlled space is an equally obvious requirement. Printing and framing photographs at a reasonable size and scale can be expensive and time-consuming, and while the host venue might assist, publicising the event takes more time and money.

As someone who has just exhibited their photographs for the first time, I have considered ‘the point’ at length. I would like to share my perspective on the value of photographic exhibitions and my experience of staging one.

Coronado Library
Coronado Library

The Venue

Firstly, here is some context. The exhibition to which I refer — Abstract Coronado: Our city from a different perspective — is currently running at the beautiful Coronado Public Library in the city where I live.

Designed by architect Harrison Albright and funded by the local philanthropist John D. Spreckels, the library was built in 1909, its neoclassical facade gracing Orange Avenue, the city’s main drag. Enlarged since, it hosts an extensive book collection, a performance space and a spectacular foyer featuring a huge mural by a renowned Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez.

Alfredo Ramos Martinez Mural Detail
Alfredo Ramos Martinez Mural Detail

The exhibition comprises twelve 16×16 inch photographs arrayed horizontally in identical 20×20 inch frames. It opened with an evening reception on September 29. So far, the feedback has been positive. Nevertheless, what’s the point?

Intersecting Planes
Intersecting Planes

The Visitor

An exhibition is an experience. Visitors encounter physical objects hanging against a wall: large, framed images in high resolution rather than small, low-resolution images they are accustomed to seeing on mobile devices. They walk through the space looking at the photographs, perhaps sharing their impressions with others.

They are provided with a narrative accompanying the display and informative captions for each photograph. They can step back and take in the collection as a whole, reflecting upon its unified theme. Visitors to an exhibition might even meet the photographer whose work is on display, especially those attending an opening reception. A photographic exhibition is not just an experience; it’s an enriching experience.

Shadows and Shapes
Shadows and Shapes

The Photographer

What about the photographer whose work is being exhibited? What is their motivation for staging an exhibition? I can think of several. Firstly, validation of their art: someone is prepared to host an exhibition and others are prepared to visit.

A further motivation could be financial, particularly for someone trying to make a living through their art: visitors might become purchasers. Surely though, the most important reason artists exhibit their work is for it to be seen in all its glory.

Although artists often say they create art for themselves and don’t care whether anyone else likes it, locking it away out of sight would forfeit the opportunity to enrich the lives of others. Exhibiting art enables others to engage with it, bringing to life the three-way transaction between artist, artwork and art lover. Presenting large-scale prints in an exhibition is a superb way of doing just that for photographic art.

Rust Transition
Rust Transition

As both photographer and a member of a local community, my objective in arranging an exhibition of my work was to engage that community in seeing its environment from a fresh perspective.

Coronado is indisputably photogenic, but what’s the value in capturing yet another image of the iconic Hotel Del Coronado or palm trees waving in the breeze? What about looking through a different, more abstract lens?

I shared my interest in abstract photography in an earlier Macfilos article. Since then, I have assembled a collection of abstract photos taken exclusively in my home town. As I gathered more examples, I suspected local residents would be intrigued to see a collection of ‘modern art’ fashioned from scenes they might pass every day. An obvious way of presenting them would be via a curated exhibition at a nearby public venue. So, I set to scheming how I might pull that off.

Shades and Shadows
Shades and Shadows

The Enquiry

The Coronado Public Library, which regularly hosts art exhibitions in its historic Spreckels room, seemed the perfect venue, so I sought out the person responsible for coordinating these events. I was referred to a senior librarian, to whom I wrote, asking whether the library was open to proposals for an exhibition of abstract photographs of the city taken by a resident.

The library director replied, diplomatically informing me that they did not feature the work of individual artists, instead assigning exhibition space to art societies and clubs, thereby allowing the work of many more artists to be displayed.

However, given that I lived locally and the photographs were taken locally, he offered the possibility of displaying them on one of the under-used wall spaces in the library, such as the ‘Teen’ section, provided there was a significant educational dimension to the exhibit.

Bingo! I began work on a concrete proposal along those lines.

Radiating Curves
Radiating Curves

The Proposal

I surveyed and measured the proposed display area, calculating that there was sufficient space to mount twelve 20×20-inch framed photographs. I wrote an accompanying narrative comprising an introduction to abstract architectural photography, an outline of the four-step process I use to create abstract images (recognising, capturing, processing, and presenting) and a conclusion inviting visitors to try it for themselves.

I created a mock-up of the proposed exhibit in Google Slides and had three 16×16-inch photos printed as examples. I presented my proposal to a small group of library staff who enthusiastically supported the project. Although it would be aimed primarily at high school-aged library users and held in the Teen section, they felt there would be considerable interest in the broader community and proposed holding a launch reception open to all comers.

We agreed that each caption should indicate approximately where each photograph had been taken so that enthusiastic visitors could track down and view the original scene for themselves.

Turquoise Horizon
Turquoise Horizon

The Logistics

Early in my exploration of abstract photography, I adopted a square format surrounded by a white border as a standard presentational style. This allowed me to exploit the intersection of the surrounding ‘frame’ with the image’s geometrical elements and (pretentiously) emphasise that these were works of art, just like paintings.

Unwittingly, this choice of format significantly reduced the availability of ready-made matted frames I could purchase for mounting prints; it seems the world prefers rectangular photos and frames. Nevertheless, I eventually procured a set of black 20×20 inch frames, matted for a 16×16 inch image.

The photographs were printed by a local store as 16×16 images with two-inch borders, yielding a final 20×20 print that slipped directly into the frame. Bob’s your uncle. At the back of each frame was a pair of identically located hook grips that would simplify the future task of hanging multiple frames in perfect alignment.

Parabolic Geometry
Parabolic Geometry

Each framed photograph cost approximately $48 to produce. I titled and initialled each in pencil, declaring it the first of a limited edition of ten. If anyone wanted to buy a print, I decided to charge $140 (£117), equivalent to three times the production costs, the profit going to the Friends of the Library.

Hanging the Prints
Hanging the Prints

The library team arranged a fresh coat of paint for the display walls and installed a ceiling-mounted hanging system, where descending cables allow complete control of the vertical and horizontal placement of hooks. With the aid of a spirit level, all twelve frames, together with captions and blocks of accompanying narrative text, were mounted — not quite in a jiffy but nevertheless looking pretty spiffy.

Pink Geometry
Pink Geometry

The Exhibition

I confess that seeing my photographs exhibited was a thrill. Although just twelve in number, they created a pleasing collective impression. Many friends attended the (alcohol-free) opening event and a (free alcohol) post-event soirée, adding to the sense of occasion. It was great fun discussing the concept and examples of abstract photography with reception attendees.

Reception (image Rick Shaughnesy)
Reception (image Rick Shaughnesy)

The Bottom Line

I am now convinced of the value of photography exhibitions in our social media era. Many elements have to fall into place in order to stage a successful showing, but I believe they are rewarding for both exhibitors and attendees. My modest exhibition featured a tiny slice of my photographic collection, albeit one that was key to unlocking this opportunity. Having experienced the direct feedback of strangers who attended the exhibition, I would love the chance to stage another, drawing upon a different strand of my photographic interests.

Diagonal Geometry
Diagonal Geometry

Please share your perspectives on photography exhibitions in the comments section. Do you have experience staging or attending an exhibition that shaped your outlook on photography? How many and what type of photographs were exhibited? Do you have any advice for photographers hoping to exhibit their work? I look forward to hearing your views.

Read more on Macfilos from the author


16 COMMENTS

  1. Keith

    Thank you for writing such an interesting article.

    So, what is the point of staging an exhibition? To me it would be the enjoyment of the creative process itself and also allowing others to share in the beauty of my images. However, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

    Many years ago, I took landscape photographs in Tuscany, Italy, and had three of them printed up to 16” x 12”. The local doctors’ surgery kindly agreed that they could be hung in their waiting room. Whether the calming effect of Tuscany had any effect on the patients before they went to see the doctor is another matter. I did sell one, but my primary motivation was just to share my images with the general public.

    I was impressed with your weathervanes article previously and perhaps some of those images could feature in a future exhibition.

    Chris

    • Hi Chris – thanks so much for your comment! It had occurred to me that an exhibition of photographs of Coronado weathervanes might be worth considering. It would also tap into that vein of interest in seeing the place from a different perspective. Following your example, I might also swing by the offices of the many dentists, doctors and lawyers we have here to see whether they might like to adorn their walls with some of these colorful abstract shots! All the best, Keith

  2. I exhibited digital prints, and even in them there are many possibilities, techniques and qualities. But I exhibited also gelatin prints, polaroids, cyanotype works or gum prints. They can be scanned to get digitals but they’re actually originals with a certain texture. Today when someone threw tomato on one of Vangogh’s sunflowers easy to see the difference between a computer screen and a real job

    • Thanks George! The prints I used in this show were all on beautifully smooth, matte photographic paper, and behind perspex (plexiglas). But, because they were photographs of real objects such as walls, as opposed to paintings, visitors commented how they appeared textured and three dimensional. Wild! All the best, Keith

  3. I agree with George – the physical texture, comparative luminosity and ink quality, no to mention printing technique and minute color differences even between b&w, and reflective qualities of the medium on which the photo is printed are all indiscernible on a screen. Scale, too, is important – close ups and landscapes are homogenized on the screen but not in actuality.

    • Hi Tony, thanks for your comment. As much as I like looking at my photographs on my high resolution Apple cinema monitor, I got a real kick out of seeing them printed at this scale. It’s hard to describe the different impact they make printed, but undoubtedly, it’s different! If only I had enough wall space to hang them all on! Cheers, Keith

  4. And in today’s digital world…, where are the boundaries of authenticity? How much to process or not? Is it legit to process a picture like one of Keith’s by exaggerating–sometimes easy to do, sometimes not–the texture of real surfaces so they can be read on a screen or in a high-resolution digital print? The boundaries of permissibility are expanding almost daily. And isn’t it the quality of the result that matters? I.e., what are the artistic goals…, and have they been met?

    And anyway, what does Mr. Vidler know? He’s just one of my best friends and the answer is, lots!, and in this instance he’s dead-on right…, but…

    • Hi Alan – many thanks for your thought-provoking comment. For these abstract images, which by design are uncoupled from the real-world object in the original photograph, I feel all is fair in terms of post-processing to achieve the effect I am after – particularly regarding depth of saturation and shadow. I am much more judicious in processing representational images. With regard to the authenticity of these images in terms of provenance, although the digital world now employs non-fungible tokens to address this issue, there is something easy and charming about writing one’s name and edition number directly on a print! Cheers, Keith

  5. Thanks for your informative and interesting article. I love the images and am particularly enchanted with parabolic geometry.

    I have only done exhibitions with an artist group where I was the only photographer. It was a treat to see my images printed. I find it a totally different and more enriching experience to see images printed and properly frames versus on a computer monitor. Black and white images are far more evocative properly processed and printed. It is also interesting to hear the comments of viewers that have insights I did not have but are based on their uniqueness.
    I agree with George and Tony on their comments.

    One further observation, do not custom frame or canvas print an image that you do not want to hang on your own wall or put into charity auctions – I have donated to charity auctions more images that did not sell than I planned for.

    • Hi Brian, thank you! That Parabolic Geometry image is the one closest to monochrome/grey scale, and it has encouraged me to consider abstract photos in black and white. I am pleased that you liked it! Thanks for the sage advice on use of custom versus ready-made frames. I agree that for photographs that will be given away, the ready-made kind are perfectly acceptable and much more cost-effective. Cheers, Keith

      • Hi Keith, I forgot to mention that you have inspired me to go out and look for capturing this style of images – less is often more! Thanks!

  6. What is the point of going to a live music performance when you can just stream music at home?
    What is the point in painting a picture when you can just take a photo on your phone?
    What is the point in going to a supermarket when you can just have the food delivered to your house?
    What is the point in going to see the pyramids or the Taj Mahal when you can just see a photo of them on your computer?
    What is the point of using film when you can just use a digital camera?
    Well, I feel sorry for people who can’t answer these questions and have reduced the quality of their life to looking at the little screen on a smart phone. There is a whole world of sensory and tactile experiences they are missing out on. Great question and important topic to think about. Excellent post with good examples! Thanks!

    • Superb comment. The digital connected world is a double edged sword. A lot of good used properly but it has so many downsides that can even be hazardous to health.

  7. Hi Stephen, thank you! I can confirm that I support live music, shop at local stores, patronize local restaurants, and travel to visit world-famous sites in person. Staging and attending local artistic events is great way to engage with and support our local communities. Glad you enjoyed the article. All the best, Keith

  8. Keith, your photos are fantastic and beautifully displayed at the lovely Coronado Library, in your hometown. I think your paragraphs in The Visitor section of your article, elegantly describe the power of exhibits.

    The radio was invented and suddenly you could listen to events and people thousands of miles away. TV and now the advances in streaming and social media bring the world into our homes, to our fingertips, eyes, and ears. But it is not the end of loneliness. People who sit in their rooms, listening to music, watching movies or theater, and viewing foreign lands, often feel more alone than ever.

    Not everyone can get out and experience live music or travel to famous sites in person. For those people, bringing the world to them is invaluable. When artists display their work, it enables people to internalize the impact of the art and the artist. This is culturally unifying and helps open a world of possibilities to the viewers.

  9. Hi Gary, Thank you for your feedback and encouragement. It was great to see you in person at the opening event and catch up with a fellow Macfilos follower and contributor – a first for me. I am determined to meet our fearless editor, in person, one of these days! I hope you and I bump into each other soon on a photo-shoot. All the best, Keith

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